What Is Cognitive Engagement and Why Is It Important?

A senior citizen does a crossword puzzle for cognitive engagement and brain health.

By Jeannie Finnegan, CDP, Elder Care & Dementia Care Specialist at Stanton Aging Solutions 

Many factors affect brain health, and research demonstrates that certain activities appear to slow cognitive decline, including exercise, adequate sleep, social interaction, and cognitive engagement (also called cognitive stimulation). One study found that mentally intact individuals in their 70s and 80s were asked how frequently they participated in six activities that required active cognitive engagement—reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, engaging in group discussions, and playing music.

An article from Harvard Health Publishing mentioned the study and said, “In the following five years, those who placed in the highest third in terms of how often they engaged in mentally stimulating activities were half as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as those in the lowest third. An earlier study found a similar link between brain-stretching activities and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.”

We know that in certain respects, the phrase “use-it-or-lose-it” applies to the brain. Cognitive abilities and brain health may weaken with age, illness, or poor habits. Cognitive engagement activities are a great way to defy this deterioration — helping you improve your attention, memory, and overall mental health. And thanks to something called neuroplasticity the malleable nature of the brain —we all have an inherent capacity to undertake any new task or learn new things at any age, thanks to neuroplasticity. People of all ages should regularly engage in cognitively stimulating activities for optimal brain health. Older adults in large numbers are learning new skills, pursuing new hobbies, and going back to college to pursue their interests and achieve their goals.  

In addition, cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to find alternate ways of accomplishing things. The only way to improve how your brain gets things done is to perform new tasks and challenge your brain to learn something new (a new skill, new vocabulary, etc.) Cognitive enhancement activities can help prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia, and can also help with the management of dementia. Everyone needs cognitive stimulation, including those with dementia, and cognitive enhancement can greatly add to the quality of life for everyone.

Activities for Cognitive Engagement

Let’s look at some everyday activities that are cognitively engaging and are helpful for brain health. Many cognitively stimulating activities are beneficial, but here are just a few that can improve attention, comprehension, perception, memory, reasoning, problem-solving, and/or processing speed:


Recent studies seem to indicate that music may enhance cognitive function and promote healthy aging, and playing a musical instrument throughout life is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. Musical training and performance appear to increase the resiliency of the brain. While even just listening to music is helpful for brain health (Baker, Mitzi. “Music Moves Brain to Pay Attention.” Stanford School of Medicine. Stanford School of Medicine, 01 Aug. 2007. Web. 03 Apr. 2014), playing a musical instrument requires active engagement of a wide range of cognitive processes, including the sensory and motor systems, and is, therefore, even more beneficial.

There are many ways to incorporate music into your daily routines. If you own a musical instrument, take it out and start playing again. Listen to favorite songs and try to recall all the lyrics. Play “name that tune” with an oldies station, or simply exercise or dance to your favorite music. Check out this book for inspirational stories and more ideas for how to use music for your own well-being or that of a loved one: The Miracle of Music – Stories of Hope, Understanding, and Inspiration, by Jeannie Finnegan of Stanton Aging Solutions (available here).

Mindful Walking

When you go for a walk, try something different — pay close attention to sensations like the rhythm of your breathing, the way the breeze feels in your hair, and the sounds around you, such as a barking dog, a passing car, the leaves rustling in the trees. The walk benefits you physically, and this mindfulness practice can help increase attention span, filter out distractions, and boost overall cognitive health.


Drawing and sketching involve perception and memory. One study also suggests that the process of drawing can help older adults fight memory loss.  Study a complex drawing with multiple layers, colors, and shapes and try to replicate it later, from memory. Or take in a scene around you and sketch it, including all the small details.

Card games

Poker, solitaire, and other card games for seniors can improve cognitive function — especially logical problem solving and memory retention. Try this card-matching game:  Pick eight to 12 pairs of identical cards, shuffle them, and then place them face down on a table. Ensure that the pairs are not together. Pick any two cards at a time and see if they match. If they match, remove the pair. See how many pairs you can match in five minutes. Keep increasing the number of pairs, to improve your memory and attention span gradually.

Word games, board games, crossword puzzles

Games like Scrabble, Clue, Monopoly, chess, checkers, and crossword puzzles can increase concentration, attention, problem-solving, creativity, focus, and overall cognitive function.

Number games, sequencing, sorting

Calculation exercises and number games like Sudoku will keep problem-solving skills sharp. In addition, you can increase memory retention by trying to remember the order of numbers, as in memorizing a new telephone number, or trying to recall the sequence of 10 random words you’ve written down. Sorting items like coins, buttons, or several decks of playing cards that are mixed up can stimulate memory, logic, categorizing, and decision-making skills.


Research has proven the power of reading in keeping Alzheimer’s disease at bay. Reading sparks imagination, exercises your brain, and keeps you informed and entertained. Reading of all types is helpful — fiction and non-fiction books, magazines and newspapers. To make it even more effective, write down a summary of what you’ve just read, or retell it to a friend or family member.

Physical exercise

A study by Italian researchers demonstrated that regular physical activity “is a strong gene modulator that induces structural and functional changes in the brain,” leading to improved cognitive skills and wellbeing.

The Alzheimer’s Association also states that regular exercise may be a beneficial strategy to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia as well. The most important thing is to choose exercises you enjoy and that are doable on a consistent basis, anything from walking to swimming to weight or resistance training.

Mind-body exercises and practices

Various activities can promote a sense of well-being and a positive connection to your body. Meditation, guided relaxation, yoga, and tai chi are examples of practices that can benefit physical and emotional health, and some evidence suggests that emotional health and positivity may improve cognition as well. Download a meditation app on your phone or check out guided relaxation, yoga, and tai chi videos on YouTube.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the cognitively stimulating things you can do for cognitive health and improvement, but consistently incorporating these activities into daily life can greatly impact brain health. Notice how these are all active rather than passive activities. Rather than passively watching a television show or YouTube video or passively listening to the radio or a book on tape, actively engaging in something makes your brain work harder, thereby increasing brain health.

At Stanton Aging Solutions, our Concierge Connection Care offers cognitively engaging activities for older adults needing more cognitive stimulation in their everyday lives for optimal brain health. For those with Alzheimer’s/dementia or a neurocognitive disorder, cognitive enhancement activities can help improve focus, attention, cooperation, and mood. Activities can include music, art, exercise, games, reminiscence and life story, and much more. Learn how Stanton Aging Solutions can help to select activities for you or a loved one.

At Stanton Aging Solutions, we are your partner in care. To find out more about all we have to offer, click here.

Leave a Reply